What Is Humanity?

To have “humanity” or be “humane” is supposed to connote positive meanings: caring, compassion, wisdom. But given humanity’s propensity, on both a personal and global level, for cruelty, greed, and selfishness throughout history (latest evidence here), I always thought it was appropriate to switch the meaning.

Humanity hasn’t done the black rhino any favors.

So if someone did something kind or caring, I would say “Oh, how inhumane,” because the action ran counter to how the human species often behaves. And the usual parade of short-sightedness and self-interestedness I considered “humane.”

I know it is cynical, and it was sort of a wry joke, but it also felt right given the evidence. Still, it is also true that humans, for all their flaws, are in fact capable of extraordinary and inspiring acts of love and kindness. And in this Ted Talk, Chris Abani, despite the life he has led and the things he has experienced, makes a heroic effort to reclaim for “humanity” some positive connotations by recounting small acts of courage and compassion, tying them into the transcendent concept of “ubuntu.”

For now, I will stick with my reversed concept of humanity. But it is in the stories Abani recounts (along with his humor and resilience), and the possibility that they can be contagious, that I place my hopes for the future.

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